Watchdog group urges media not to use 'religious freedom' in upcoming Supreme Court case

The Supreme Court will hear arguments on Dec. 5 in a closely watched case that pits a wedding cake maker against anti-discrimination laws.

The story might be familiar: In 2012, two gay men, Charles Craig and David Mullins, visited Jack Phillips' Masterpiece Cakeshop in the Denver area in search of a wedding cake. They left empty-handed.

They decided to file a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Division, accusing Phillips of discriminating against them based on their sexual orientation. The agency initiated action against Phillips, because it had an anti-discrimination law on the books that included sexual orientation.

He responded by saying that "he could not in good conscience create a wedding cake that celebrates their marriage." He is a Christian who closes his shop on Sundays and does not make cakes that contain alcohol, celebrate Halloween or celebrate a divorce, according to a preview of the case on the SCOTUS blog.

So you have two cultural hot-button issues — same-sex marriage and the ability to practice one's religious beliefs — colliding in a case that is sure to garner lots of media coverage. The case has also attracted the attention of the Trump administration, which has filed a brief supporting the bakery.

Enter GLAAD, the watchdog organization that monitors media coverage of LGBTQ issues. The group recently sent a letter to the heads of major media organizations, including CNN, MSNBC, the New York Times, the Associated Press, the Washington Post and Reuters, urging the organizations to be mindful of the language they use when reporting on the case.

At issue are the terms "religious freedom" and "religious liberty." GLAAD is promoting the use of the term "religious exemptions" instead.

"Religious freedom is paramount to our country and that’s why it is already protected by the First Amendment," said Sarah Kate Ellis, President and CEO of GLAAD. "However, media continues to inaccurately use terminology such as 'religious freedom' or 'religious liberty' to refer to what are actually 'religious exemptions' that discriminate against women, LGBTQ people, single parents, people of color, and many more."

She also singled out what she called "anti-LGBTQ organizations" who are pushing that language.

She's referring to a group called Alliance Defending Freedom, which has been an integral part of the case. An ADF lawyer, Kristen Waggoner, is representing Phillips. The group was founded 24 years ago because its president, Alan Sears, said "the homosexual agenda threatens religious freedom."

In a profile of the case and the group for The Nation, reporter Sarah Posner describes how the organization "now rivals some of the nation's top law firms in Supreme Court activity." Posner noted that "ADF has positioned itself at the very center of the efforts to curtail LGBTQ rights under the guise of religious freedom."

GLAAD's letter also includes more than 40 other organizations that are urging the media to use the term "religious exemptions." Some of those organizations are Planned Parenthood, National Black Justice Coalition, Equality Federation and the Trevor Project.

The model for this push was the “Drop the I word campaign” that the immigration rights movement launched to call attention to the media’s misuse of the word “illegal” to describe undocumented people.

Here's an excerpt from the GLAAD letter:

GLAAD and the below signed organizations are writing to you today to ask that you use the more accurate terminology of religious exemptions for your readers, viewers, and listeners moving forward. 
 
Our religious freedom and religious liberty values are already – and must continue to be – protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. Religious exemption laws and court cases allow business owners to impose their religious beliefs on their employees, their customers, their patients, their constituents, and others. As a result, religious exemptions have in many cases become a vehicle for harming others or refusing to follow any number of laws that individuals and/or companies claim interfere with their religious beliefs — including nondiscrimination laws, healthcare laws, and even laws that protect public safety and prevent abuse.

* * * 

Under religious exemption laws, a business owner can deny women reproductive health care services, reject a person of color’s housing or employment application, or refuse to give medical care to a child of two lesbian women. 
 
With the upcoming Supreme Court case and an administration that prioritizes religious exemptions alongside groups like the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a SPLC-designated hate group representing Masterpiece Cakeshop, now is the time to ask the nation’s media to use accurate phrasing instead of a misnomer aimed at miseducation. To do this, media should use religious exemptions to describe the upcoming Supreme Court case and related bills being considered around the country. 
 
This is serious, and it is about more than a cake. It is about broad discrimination and the harms it could cause. The Masterpiece case will set the precedent for any debates on religious exemptions for generations to come for the United States, and it is vital the public understands what is at stake. Every story and interview by the media on this topic could shape minds and sway public majority behind protecting all Americans — not just a special and exempt few. Only the media can bring the full scope with what’s at stake for this nation if the U.S. Supreme Court were to let fringe influences dictate how we treat one another in this country. 

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    Anne Glover

    Anne Glover worked as an editor at the Tampa Bay Times for more than 33 years, and has been a visiting faculty member at Poynter teaching copy editing and leadership.

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